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Mobile Phone, Pocket Bike Legislation Gets Committee OK

Oct. 14, 2005 – A pair of bills that could make Virgin Islands highways safer are making their way through the Senate.
One aims to restrict drivers’ use of cell phones and the other seeks to keep "pocket bikes," basically miniature motorbikes, off highways.
Novelle Francis, territorial chief of police, told members of the Committee on Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice hearing Friday, that the police department was investigating on average 23 accidents a week on St. Croix. He added that statistics indicated to him that drivers distracted by cell phones caused a rising number of those accidents.
Sen. Ronald Russell said that on more than one occasion he had seen a driver talking on a cell phone drive through a stop sign without noticing it. Addressing legislation prohibiting the use of mobile telephones while operating a motor vehicle, he said, is a "good bill, and it is timely."
The bill, proposed by Sens. Roosevelt David and Lorraine Berry, had little trouble gaining the committee's recommendation and approval to move on to the Rules Committee.
Also receiving that recommendation and approval was a bill proposed by Sen. Pedro Encarnacion to prohibit the use of pocket bikes on public highways.
Testifying besides Frances were Police Commissioner Elton Lewis, Jerris Browne, deputy commissioner of support services, and Daniel Matarangas-King, police legal counsel.
Both bills had the support of the police department, but concerns were raised.
Sen. Celestino White said, "laws upon laws" were passed, but enforcement was sometimes hard to follow up on.
What concerned White, and was pursued in questioning by Sens. Russell and Usie Richards, was the exemption for emergency calls. Richards asked what would prevent anyone being accused by a police officer of using their phone while driving from claiming the phone call was an emergency call to the doctor.
The best answer the testifiers could give was that a court of law would make the decision whether it was an emergency or not.
When it came down to the voting only White withheld an affirmative vote for the bill after an amendment offered by David was approved.
The amendment concerned school bus drivers and a person who holds a learner's permit.
Richards questioned what the cost of the bill, which only addressed hand-held phones, would be. He was told by Matarangas-King that cords connecting the phone to the ear could be purchased for as low as $9.
As far as pocket bikes were concerned, if the bikes were banned from public highways there should still be a place where people could ride them.
"They should not be banned from our islands," Liston Davis said. "They should not be operated on our highways. They should be restricted, designated areas should be set aside where they can be operated."
Lewis said his department was "in full support of the bill" because the operation of the bikes on highways was a safety concern.
"Because of the size of these miniaturized motor bikes, both the bikes and their operators are difficult for drivers to see," Lewis said in his prepared statement.
Francis said the department was presently ticketing pocket bike operators under the unregistered motor vehicle law.
Meanwhile, Lewis came prepared to discuss the organization of the police department, which he said is understaffed. He said in the last fiscal year the department lost 52 people
However, Sen. Encarnacion, chairman of the committee, said the organization of the police department was a matter that should be discussed when Sen. Lorraine Berry, who was absent, could attend. Committee members present were David, Davis, Louis Hill, Neville James and White. Non-committee members Richards and Russell were also present.

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